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In search of good rye bread

I’ve been attempting rye bread and kornbroyt (Jewish sourdough whole wheat bread) on and off since about last Chanukah–almost a whole year! You would think this was unnecessary, since I live close enough to North Hollywood/Valley Village, the eastern hub of LA for Jewish bakeries and delis (the older western hub is “the Fairfax” neighborhood and the Pico/Robertson area). The rye bread you can get at these places isn’t terrible; my synagogue orders it regularly along with 6-braid challahs for big events, and it’s okay. It just isn’t much better than Arnold’s or Sara Lee, the lightweight commercial supermarket versions I grew up with in the south when we couldn’t get the real thing from New York more than once or twice a year.

Last spring I bought the big crusty half-boule loaves of wholewheat sourdough from Trader Joe’s to sub in for kornbroyt at a big synagogue brunch and they were wonderful–and also not screamingly high in sodium as most hard-crust sourdoughs are (Whole Foods, most bakeries, certainly La Brea and friends). Certainly less per serving than the French loaves and ciabattas and other items on the gourmet bread stand at TJs. The Pain Mich’ demi-boule was a very good deal all the way around, and I’ve bought it weekly for years.

But shortly afterward, TJs switched bakers and the new ones produced something that only looked similar. The crust was flabby and the crumb was like the stuffing of old office chairs–crumbly and weak, lacking flavor, not springy and full of moxie like the real thing. What could have happened to my favorite shortcut to the good life? They still haven’t fixed the problem. Which is probably at least partly due to an inferior use of sour culture. Or CUL-choo-ah as my mom says (Brooklyn accent hard to miss).

So I was going to have to figure it out for myself if I didn’t want to remain a deprived child.

For the past 30-40 years, according to Stan Ginsberg and Norm Berg in their book Inside the Jewish Bakery, the flavor and texture of commercial rye bread  have really been watered down as companies went national and American-style with it. It became paler and lighter in texture, with less rye flour and more additives–oils, conditioners, salt. And they used commercial dry yeast instead of sourdough culture, which takes too long and for a long time wasn’t generally considered reliable or controlled enough a process for mass production–probably not for FDA and local health inspectors either. So most commercial rye bread lacks the true rye sour starter flavor, and is no longer really chewy or dark. Or crusty. Which is how I want mine.

All of those lost characteristics from my childhood memories of real New York rye bread and kornbroyt, made by local union bakers and brought down to Virginia once or twice a year by my grandparents, have now regained popularity in the US foodie arena. Well, not rye bread as such, but “old world” artisan wholegrain sourdough breads that seek to copy Poilâne’s legendarily crusty round loaf. Enthusiasts bring up a lot of sinister-sounding bakers’ terms: levain, cloak, slash, hydration percentage, etc. And they’ve come respectably close. But they’re still lacking the sign of authenticity: the union label pasted on the endpiece!

One major American bakery to achieve similar cult status to Poilâne is Tartine. Complete with three lengthy baking manuals so far on how to build a sour, incorporate all kinds of grains and let the sour culture digest them for the right number of days until they’re ready to set up as loaves.

The books are filled with gorgeous, crusty loaves that cost a fortune at gourmet bakeries if you can find them at all in your town. But it’s like looking through the bakery window, hungry, with your nose pressed up against the glass. Most people don’t have the singlemindedness to follow all the steps at home more than once, much less for more than one or two varieties of more-expensive, Whole-Foods-only, alternate grain breads.

The books are also filled with testimony as to just how many years it took each baker on the team to fulfill his or her apprenticeship and perfect the technique.

Years, though. That’s a lot of time to get yourself a decent home-baked loaf of rye bread that tastes like it could stand up to corned beef. Which makes me wonder whether a mere cookbook can really teach it.

So why bother (except for the perverse curiosity that drives me to mad-scientist-like experiments that probably won’t win the Nobel this year, or any year)? Because once in a while you want good rye bread even if you live on the West Coast.

Looking at the pictures and even reading the instructions can’t give you the exact right sour or air temp or humidity or other conditions that make Tartine’s bread award-winning. Your yeast may vary. You may not have the same sensitivity in your hands or know exactly how moist or elastic or heavy or whatever the dough needs to feel like at each stage. You have to be willing to experiment and fail a couple of times and pay attention to how it looks, feels, smells, and be willing to fiddle around and adjust the next time.

That’s okay. Perfection is not a Jewish ideal, so much, and rye bread is not so hard to improve with practice. Our great-(great-etc.) grandmothers were making rye bread pretty often in the shtetls with whatever starters they had and could keep going throughout some pretty challenging winters. And every spring they’d have to get rid of their sour cultures right before Passover and start over from scratch as soon as it was over. In Russian-Polish spring weather. (My grandfather always said you knew it was spring when the first oxcart got stuck in the mud. It meant the ground had finally thawed.)

So you could probably figure that the women in the shtetls weren’t always overjoyed to have to throw away their sour cultures every spring, and the first loaves of bread in the shtetls after Passover ended might not have been a lot of good for a week or so extra. Or they could have turned out like my first one, especially if it took an extra week for the miller to supply new rye and wheat flour.

To tell you the truth: getting a rye sour started is no big deal–I seem to have done it on the first try, even while taking the onion shortcut (see the bottom of the post) and being much too casual with the flour and water proportions in Ginsberg and Berg’s rye bread instructions from Inside the Jewish Bakery. It’s just that getting the sour ready for baking takes a while–like 3 to 5 days. And then it gets more refined and hopefully consistent as you feed it sequentially over time. Professional bakers guard their established sours like gold.

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

Rye sour getting started with raw onion

What went wrong on my first try, right before New Year’s, was that I didn’t put in quite enough wheat flour for the final dough. I was still thinking loose, elastic, relatively wet dough like my usual pizza dough or challah dough, and this needed to be stiffer to match the picture in the book, which showed an actual spherical ball of dough. I figured my usual dough would be a little moister and give nice, big ragged holes–however… Continue reading

Passover Dessert Challenge: No Eggs!

 Passover-eggless-chocolatealmondtorte-halfsheet

Bear with me, I’m still a little hyper (see below). Three days before the first Passover seder, and I’ve been asked to bring a non-fruit, non-macaroon dessert. With a few caveats.

This is the ultimate, I think: a fresh dessert, preferably deep chocolate, with no dairy (serving at a meat meal), no fake stuff (because I can’t stand it) and obviously for Passover, no chametz (forbidden grains like wheat, barley, oats, etc.) or kitniyot (legumes, corn, rice, peas and green beans, some seeds, nuts and spices, plus some vegetable oils derived from them, like sunflower…). Also, for reasons of the requesting family’s allergies, no pistachios, hazelnuts or cashews, or cinnamon.

Or, and here’s the kicker for Passover desserts–eggs. No eggs! And it’s got to be moist and fabulous, or at least obviously better than the standard choke cake box mix, and prettier than the all-real-but-undecorated apple-almond cake I served a couple of years ago. And it’s got to rise and still be kosher for Passover under Orthodox Union rules. Which I had to look up on line for some of the possibilities I had in mind.

It’s not dread in my heart, surprisingly, but a little tinge of excitement at another chance to mess around and come up with something decent.

I’ve done a few home desserts that weren’t bad and that didn’t contain most of the forbidden items. My first best hope is something as close as possible to my favorite, Sacher torte (because I’m unoriginal and because at least I’ll like it). I’ve been working on this for a while and I thought, I can get by without eggs as long as I have some other way to raise the cake and keep it from turning into a rubber brick.

And eggs aren’t the only way to raise a cake or make a cookie without violating the kosher-for-Passover rules. It turns out that some brands of baking soda, including Arm&Hammer and a number of smaller and store brands, are processed under sufficient supervision so there’s no contamination from cornstarch or grains or the like, and are now considered kosher for Passover under O-U rules–it’s worthwhile looking them up. So is all unflavored bottled soda water, even without a kosher certification mark. That one I remember from my student days, when somebody said you could pour seltzer into matzah ball mix to lighten it.

Another item that turns out to be okay is linseed–aka flax. So if you grind linseed and bring it up with water, you could do a kosher-for-Passover dessert without eggs for the kinds of things flaxmeal works for. Consult a vegan dessert book (aside: a lot of the authors are Jewish! Maybe not so surprising), use matzah cake meal and/or almond meal instead of standard flour, and you might be in like Flynn (or at least like Feldman).

Other key ingredients to check are K-leP (kasher lePesach; kosher for Passover)…

The chocolate, obviously. Elite makes so-so quality but certified pareve kosher for Passover bittersweet bars, and they can definitely be put to work. Hershey’s plain (not Special Dark) non-dutched cocoa powder is accepted by the O-U even with just its regular certification mark. Some cider vinegar is probably certified–but fresh lemon juice or orange juice might work too, in case I can’t find an O-U-labeled version. And unflavored raw almonds, walnuts, pecans and almond meal from Trader Joe’s are also all approved, at least this year. Also white cane sugar and non-iodized salt with a regular year-round O-U certification mark.

Other items:

Plain dried fruits as long as they’re not coated with vegetable oils or the like.

Plain fresh fruits other than raspberries and their kin, which are hard to inspect for tiny bugs among the drupelets (but which the O-U has a whole procedure for inspecting at home to make them okay–it boils down to washing and looking carefully. So much for the mystery…).

Spices are more of a pain–some, like caraway and fennel, are considered kitniyot, even though very similar ones in the same family, like anise, are acceptable. Not that I was going to put any of these in a chocolate cake, mind you, but I like to keep my options open for other, non-chocolate, possibilities. Ground spices need to be certified for Passover, and most of the supermarket store brands aren’t.

Finally there’s the taste/texture issue, the 11th commandment: Thou Shalt Serve No Choke Cake (not even before its time, and thank you so much Paul Masson).

You want something raised with seltzer or baking soda and no eggs, you’re taking your chances on a pretty dry item. Almond meal contributes oil and moisture without making things oily as long as you remember to cut down on oil ingredients to compensate. But depending on how light or springy you want your cake, you may need more matzah cake meal for structure, which really dries things out if you go too far with it. Weighing the matzah meal is better than measuring into a cup because it’s dryer–already baked–so it’s denser than regular flour. You need more liquids if you use matzah meal–hence the usual eggs. Without eggs, you want something that will retain moisture in the cake and still give a bit of structure. Apples or applesauce would be my best bet, substituted for whatever oil, margarine or butter your cake recipe calls for, just slightly lower volumes to avoid making the batter too wet.

Pumpkin I’ve also tried in my callow youth. While it’s fine and occasionally impressive for a non-chocolate dessert and for plenty of savory dishes, something about it suppresses the essence of chocolate. The one time I tried canned pumpkin for fat-free brownies, the texture came out near-perfect, but it mysteriously sucked all the chocolateness out of the air while the brownies were baking. And then there was a serious blank in the chocolate department when I tasted, even though the texture was good and I’d put in a lot of cocoa powder. Life is unfair. And on the other hand apples won’t let you down, and even a little applesauce works beautifully instead of oil both in chocolate box mixes and in from-scratch cakes. Should work for Passover versions too.

Lest you wonder whether it’s possible to do a decent pareve frosting suited to a Sacher Torte Occasion, which–no surprise here–is what I’m aiming for, I’ve just done a test run (Wednesday) on the whole cake recipe I had in mind, thinking I might have to adjust before Friday.

This cake is a cocoa-flavored version of the basic gingerbread (cake, not cookie) recipe from the Silver Palate cookbooks. I’ve used it for honeycake at Rosh Hashanah with good results—even in the microwave. I almost always substitute unsweetened applesauce or grated apples for any oil in standard cake recipes or box mixes.

Here I’m also increasing the baking soda a little to compensate for the lack of an egg and substituting almond meal for most or all of the flour (and not adding molasses or ginger, obviously). From the typical nutrition label, I estimate the almond meal is about fifty percent oil by weight, most of it polyunsaturated fats. You really don’t need any more fat in the cake. It’s not low-cal even so, but the advantage healthwise is that most of the oil is polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, plus the almonds have fiber and protein. Beats adding sticks of butter.

The Silver Palate gingerbread method is pretty classic: you mix the dry ingredients together. Stir in the egg and oil (in most recipes) or in this case just the apple or applesauce and extra baking soda. Then you pour on fresh hot coffee or boiling water and stir quickly to get things just mixed to a batter. A little vinegar or in this case, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, stirred in at the last minute before pouring into a sheet pan and sticking it in the oven, helps the coffee activate the baking soda.

The pareve, egg-and-butter-free chocolate cake didn’t rise a ton, probably because I included exactly zero matzah cake meal, and just a tiny token bit of potato starch, probably not quite enough to keep the rise. The cocoa powder itself provides a little backbone as it cooks, but probably next time I’ll add either another two or three spoonfuls of potato starch or a single sheet of matzah, crumbled into the coffee grinder and turned into fine grind cake meal.

But even as it was, first time around, this cake came out like you wouldn’t believe. Excessively fudgy cake, insanely good, and the attempt at a completely nondairy ganache without nasty creamer or margarine-type additions went so well I’m going to have to patent it or something.

As I’m sure (and sorry) is apparent, due to the serious cocoa-and-hot-coffee content, plus the elation that it wasn’t a flop, I found myself on a caffeine high and completely unable to shut up about it while driving my kid home from school. She discovered I wasn’t wrong. We both recommend thin (half-inch) slices to avoid shock, caffeine highs, and that feeling afterward like you’ve just eaten Monty Python’s wafer-thin mint. You will be satisfied–a little goes a long way.

This half-inch slice is seriously enough for a serving. It's that rich.

This half-inch slice is seriously enough for a serving at the seder. It’s that rich.

Anyway, this is going to work and it is SIMPLE. And tastes fabulous. Fabulous, very definitely. If you like flourless chocolate cake and ganache, try this at home. Even though, as I say, it has no butter. No eggs. And no crap. And it’s not too slow (though the baking time kind of is; 40-45 minutes because it’s very moist and stays that way after it collapses back down and shows light cracking–see photo at top of post). Continue reading

Rugelach and the Chanukah Fairy

Doesn’t that sound like the perfect title for an equal-opportunity holiday-themed kiddie book? Too bad my daughter’s too old for it now, and so are my nephews. Plus no one under 30 knows how to pronounce rugelach anymore. The “ch” always makes for Adam Sandler jokes because it’s so obviously Hard to Pronounce and even more obviously Not English–you use your throat to talk? Gross joke alert! The young and self-conscious have even taken to respelling Chanukah Hanukkah, just to avoid getting laughed at by their friends. Or their parents.

You may be asking what on earth rugelach have to do with Chanukah–and I’m a little late discoursing about Chanukah this week, since it just ended. However, let me warn you, they’re entirely relevant to the holiday treats vs. self-control dilemma.

Rugelach rolls slashed, baked and ready to be cut apart

Forming long rolls, slashing them partway before baking and then slicing them after is a quicker and easier way to form rugelach, especially with a very soft, delicate and hard-to-handle dough. It also lets the dough bake into crisp layers without letting the jam leak out. These two rolls are half the batch.

Fresh cheese (cream cheese, farmer’s or pot cheese) and sour cream are symbolic of Chanukah just as much as frying latkes or sufganiyot (doughnuts) in olive oil. During the war with the Assyrian Greeks in ca. 165 BCE that led to the rededication of the Temple (the event that sparked Chanukah), a Jewish woman named Judith invited the Assyrian Greek general Holofernes into her tent for what he thought was dinner and a movie–and she served him rich cheesecake (sometimes the story says “cheese pancakes”–maybe blintzes? who knows) to make him thirsty and then offered him a lot of undiluted wine. After that, the tryptophan got to him as she’d hoped (they didn’t have turkey back then) and he fell asleep. She chopped off his head (possibly to save the Jews, probably to stop the snoring) and Famous Western Painters from Rubens to Klimt have been painting her portrait ever since.

Puts another spin on the supposed tameness of homestyle baking, don’t it? Also serves as a warning on the more-is-more approach to pigging out. But old-style rugelach are designed to prevent both tameness and pigging out.

Now rugelach–the real thing–are what Pop Tarts never aspired to be (see Jerry Seinfeld’s Pop Tart joke in development at the New York Times online). That is, rugelach are self-limiting (an anti-commercial value) not because there are only two in the package but because they are serious pastry and taste like it.

The real thing is rich and flavorful enough that a few bites, one or two rugelach, are plenty even though they’re small. And before you ask why, it’s the use of cream cheese in the dough; the  tang makes the flavor seem a lot richer with a little less fat than an all-butter pastry dough. And it makes the dietary badness self-limiting: you really know when you’ve had enough.

One or two–delightful, blissful, they don’t do it like this anymore, it’s really Old School, my grandmother used to make these, how do you get them so flaky? Three–these are delicious, these are so evil, you’ve got to try the chocolate apricot one, I’ve already had so many! Four–klunk, groan (head hits knees in queasy stupor). It never fails.

Despite the Americanization and factory production of rugelach (even Starbucks sells a tame untangy version of them occasionally, or they used to), rugelach are a Jewish bakery specialty with a very simple dough that gives unbelievably rich, flaky, almost strudel-like results if you do it right. And luckily for me, it’s easy to do right. But it’s still too dangerous to do often.

And yet I’ve found myself making several batches this “holiday season”–one for my daughter’s piano recital, using the classic (and palming off the leftovers on the hosts so I wouldn’t have them at home), one for an experimental “lite” version that almost, but not quite, worked. It had flake, it lacked character. Sort of like the bland Americanized versions. What can I tell you? The lack of tang can’t be made up with salt and sugar–the tang is really what does it, which is why I went back to the classic and won’t revisit it again until next year.

…Although a woman in my congregation says she has a recipe that uses cottage cheese instead of cream cheese and is really good, I am choosing not to believe her.

Note on the dietary badness factor: If you go with either of these doughs and the fillings as directed in the recipe (i.e., you don’t double the sugar or use very sugary jam), a single rugelach comes out with about 6 grams total fat and 6 grams carbohydrate, about 65 calories, and about 20 mg. sodium. The degree of saturated fat depends on which recipe you use.

Classic Rugelach Dough (makes 44-48)

The classic recipe for the dough is:

  • 2 sticks (8 oz., 1/2 lb.) unsalted butter
  • an 8 oz package cream cheese
  • 2 c. flour

So basically equal and large amounts of butter and cream cheese. Soften them both and beat them together (a food processor is fine). Put the blended fats in a big mixing bowl and fold in the flour very gently with a wooden spoon, a couple of forks or the like, and don’t mix too thoroughly,  just barely enough for everything to come together as a very soft crumbly dough you can press into a ball. Put the dough in a plastic bag and pat it into a disk, divide it into four parts with a knife, and chill in the fridge or freezer about an hour until it’s firm enough to roll out. Easy, right?

Some people decorate the basic recipe with extra salt or sugar or, G-d help us, vanilla (Gale Gand puts in all three, why I don’t know). But really, the basic is the best. It gives you a nonsweet, very savory base for a sweet filling, and it’s anything but boring. It does NOT need jazzing up any more than French or Danish puff pastry does. And it builds character to make a pastry that doesn’t bow to middle-American excess. We have plenty of our own excess, thank you very much.

But cream cheese AND butter. A pound of fats for only two cups of flour, and almost all of it’s saturated. Yikes.

So I got to thinking (it had to happen sometime last week). Could I make the dough a little less rich and still great? Subbing in a reduced-fat labaneh from Karoun Dairies for the cream cheese? Maybe–but there’d be some water in it. Might not flake right. Hmm. Try it anyway, report back. Continue reading

Fruitcake and the Jews

A week or so ago, just before the Chanukah madness, my husband brought home what he assumed were The Goods from the local Vons (Safeway chain affiliate on the west coast)–a classic fruitcake, green and red candied citron glowing evilly amid chunks of walnut and raisins and other less identifiable bits and topped with syrupy pecans and glacéed cherries. Tacky as hell, we know. We love fruitcake anyway.

Why do Jews like fruitcake more than Christians do? You know, the kind of indestructible fruitcake everyone jokes about passing off to some unsuspecting cousin after having received it 20 years earlier and having kept the tin in the closet all that time underneath some shoes. The kind the British refer to as “doorstop”. The kind all modern cake blogs decry when they present their own lighter, cakier, less fruity and less chewy version as “fruitcake you’ll actually like.” THAT fruitcake.

Well. Private Selection or not, the cake from Vons was…I don’t know if there are new legal restrictions on using rum or bourbon or other booze as a baking ingredient these days (or ice cream flavor; hard to find Rum Raisin anymore). Maybe it’s a California-does-rehab thing, or just a huge downgrading of quality, but it. Was. Awful.

No rum. No bourbon or other appropriate flavoring. Instead, the loaf was permeated with an aggressively soapy flavor/odor (we couldn’t even tell which), horridly artificial and perfumy like fruit-scented liquid hand soap. Or that overpowering Dove soap I always hated as a kid. You couldn’t even taste the raisins or walnuts, which by all accounts, including visual inspection, were present.

We were, perhaps for the first time ever, not tempted to eat any more, not even to try a tiny second taste the next day to see if it was really as bad as we thought the first time. Just passing the open packet on the table was enough to convince us the bar of Dove that must have fallen into the batter was still giving that loaf its younger-looking complexion. After several days of forlorn looks in its direction, we actually threw it out.

In any case, I’ve been looking for a trustworthy recipe for fruitcake ever since and not succeeding much. In a place where there is no fruitcake, strive thou to make taka a fruitcake. (Not exactly sure what the “taka” part means in Yiddish; the way my mother says it, it means something like “especially” or “such a”, but less polite and more ironic, as you might use it when pointing out how incredibly garish and over-the-top the neighbor’s Christmas lights are with the Continue reading

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